One of the major concerns for  women during pregnancy is their exposure to substances that can cause birth defects. Chemicals, medicine, and environmental factors that can negatively impact a developing embryo or fetus are called teratogens. Most people are likely aware of the obvious teratogens like alcohol, smoking, and illegal drugs; however, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists are constantly finding new things that are being linked to various birth abnormalities. Recently, I read a short article on air pollution and its connection to birth defects. A pdf of the original journal article can be found here; it’s a really good read if you have the time. Anyway, this study got the skeptic in me wondering just how significant air pollution may be on pregnant mothers their developing offspring. Is it really a substantial concern that is progressively getting worse? Or is its importance being blown out of proportion by environmental “doomsdayers” using circumstantial evidence?

It’s already known that the fetus can absorb chemicals the mother inhales from smoke, one major example of that is cigarette use. So realistically, it’s not a long shot to assume that other harmful chemicals can be transferred in utero through the air the mother breathes in. After some digging around on the internet, I came to the conclusion that the previously mentioned article does have merit. Numerous sites, from shady news sites to more valid government and educational sites, seem to all indicate that air pollution is a growing concern, especially in developing countries.


Thick Air Pollution in Shandong Province, China

Additionally, it has been shown to have negative effects on not only fetuses, but also on children and adults. The previously linked pdf breaks down the various gases found in polluted air in San Joaquin Valley, California. It showed an overall increase in various birth defects the more polluted the air was. The pregnant women exposed to high amounts of air pollutants were shown to have fetuses with abnormalities ranging from neural tube defects to cleft palates.

I feel that more should be done to decrease the amount of air pollution, especially in places where it is extremely high. It affects everyone’s quality of life, and is now shown to even affect lives before they are born, essentially setting people up for failure. Clearly it would be difficult to implement wide spread changes in the way cities function, but I think the health benefits greatly outweigh the time and money it would take to decrease pollution and find alternative solutions. For instance, bio-fuels are already in development and have been shown to be cost effective and sustainable.

Cultural Fun Fact!

While developed countries have problems with air pollution in as well, the majority of air pollution and birth defects occur in developing countries centered around Asia. At the top of the air pollution lists are India, China, Saudi Arabia, and Cameroon.

In a study done in China, 140 infants per 10,000 were born with neural tube defects, as opposed to the 7.5 per 10,000 in the United States. The sample was taken from a pollution heavy area in Shanxi, China. Additionally, babies born with higher levels of PM2.5 and PM10 consistently had lower birth weights than babies experiencing less air pollution.


Average PM2.5 air pollution levels in 2006. Blue=less pollution, Red=most pollution


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